Saturday, March 3, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Terror Tract (2000)

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

A real estate agent of somewhat intense disposition (John Ritter) shows off three houses to a young couple (David DeLuise and Allison Smith). The prospective homeowners become increasingly disturbed, for the real estate agent follows the spirit of full disclosure (it’s the law, apparently) to the limit and tells them a tale of the horrible/hilarious things that went down in each of these places, leading to three segments, after whose telling things become rather peculiar.

In the first, “Nightmare”, a wife (Rachel York) and her lover (Carmine Giovinazzo) are caught in the act by her crazy husband (Fredric Lehne). Hubby hasn’t quite gotten the memo about grown-up reactions to this sort of thing and plans to shoot him and hang her, making it look like a murder suicide. The couple manage to turn the tables on him, leading to a very dead husband but because “the cops wouldn’t believe us” – a refrain in all three tales – they decide to hide the body and pretend he just disappeared. Alas, various natural – neither her nerves nor his brain can cope with the situation, plus the hubby’s fishing buddy was a cop – and unnatural – assholes seldom rest easily in horror movies after all – occurrences are standing in the way of anything but a darkly ironic ending.

The second segment, “Bobo”, sees the loving relationship between a man (Bryan Cranston) and his little daughter (Katelin Petersen) threatened when she finds a monkey dressed in a red suit out in the family home’s garden. Dubbing him Bobo, it’s love at first sight for the kid, but her Dad seems rather taken aback by the animal. Now, perhaps his wife (Jodi Harris) is right and he’s just feeling threatened by realizing he has no actual control about his daughter’s feelings towards anyone or anything – not even himself; on the other hand, the monkey might indeed be a crazed killer and brother in spirit to that charming animal in Argento’s Phenomena. In any case, the duel between Cranston and Monkey becomes increasingly deranged.

In the final tale, “Come to Granny”, a psychiatrist (Brenda Strong) suffers through a surprise visit by a young man (Will Estes) who tells her a wild tale about his mental connection to the local serial killer, dubbed the Granny Killer because he’s wearing a creepy old woman mask and offing his victims while making granny-based quips. Apparently, the guy has visions of all of the killer’s murders – or is he perhaps the killer?

Terror Tract – directed by Lance W. Dreesen and Clint Hutchison - is a low budget thriller anthology made for the USA Channel and/or the direct-to-DVD market of the time. As it goes with the former in its late period movies, the degree of sex and violence on offer is not terribly high – it’s about on the level of an X-Files episode (and not “Home”, for that matter), with a moment of sideboob thrown in. That’s quite a bit more of direct depravity than you got during the high water mark of this sort of TV production during the 70s, but the gore hounds among my imaginary readers might want to keep this in mind when they storm their imaginary video stores to acquire this.

As a whole, this anthology movie is a rather fun black horror comedy treating the US suburbs as a breeding ground for madness and violence full of absolutely crazy, nice, white, upper middleclass people and murderous monkeys. Pencil that in as conscious – if terribly blunt – satire, or just as a film following one string of US horror traditions to near absurdity. In any case, the whole thing culminates in a very silly yet also very funny and actually pretty clever sequence that suggests the specific suburb these tales take place in is indeed the place where all horror and thriller stories located in the suburbs take place in, or perhaps the platonic ideal of this place.

The framing sequences are – atypical for a anthology horror – very much worthwhile, with something that feels a lot like the kind of story Stephen King would have put into one of his first couple of short story collections taking place in the background. Ritter is playing against his image quite wonderfully, giving a performance that’s just the right kind of broad, and DeLuise and Smith mostly function as his straight people, until that excellent final sequence.

Of the episodes, “Nightmare” is probably the most traditionally straightforward one, apart from the fact that our doomed protagonists aren’t actually guilty of much more than adultery and stupidity. Usually, it takes a little more than that to be punished this heavily in an EC-style horror tale. It is atmospheric in any case, with some fine scenes that blur the line between dream and reality and an ending that feels surprisingly nasty.

“Bobo” is obviously the highpoint of the film. This is after all a tale in which a young-ish Bryan Cranston rants and raves through a psychological and physical duel with a wee little knife-wielding monkey. “Bobo” delivers everything that high concept promises through a brilliant tour-de-force performance by an increasingly deranged Cranston and some good work by the monkey(s) too. The editing’s also fantastic, as is the fact that this slightly insane little ditty also has more thematic resonance than I’d have expected. Of course, when you really think about it, what better way is there to talk about a white middle-class guy’s anxieties about the brittleness of his life, his love, and his possessions is there than to let him fight a monkey?

For some reason, the last proper segment of the film is its weakest. The Granny Killer mask is appropriately creepy, and the murder visions are filmed in a bit of a giallo style, but the plot as a whole is terribly predictable, the twist even more so. There’s just not much of interest going on there.

However, every anthology horror film is bound by law to have at least one weak segment, so Terror Tract is really only doing its duty here. It doesn’t matter much anyhow, for the rest of the film is not just pretty damn fun, it is also quite a bit more clever than I would have expected going in. And frankly, there is no way I wouldn’t recommend a film with “Bobo” in it, even if the rest of it were completely unwatchable.

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